This week I’m counting down the five most important personnel questions facing the Redskins in training camp and the preseason.
No. 2: How effective will Tim Hightower be coming off a torn ACL in his left knee?
Hightower is the most complete running back on the roster, and he’s positioned to be the starter if he’s fully fit.
Hightower was limited in minicamp last month. Now that he’s more than eight months removed from ligament reconstruction surgery, coaches could ease him back into a full workload as camp progresses and have him ready for the regular season.
He is adept at diagnosing cutback lanes in the zone scheme, and he excelled last season at squaring his shoulders to the line of scrimmage and bursting upfield. There’s not much wasted movement. He finishes runs powerfully. And although his pass blocking can be inconsistent, he’s better than second-year backs Roy Helu Jr. and Evan Royster.
Don’t forget about Hightower’s improved ball security, either. After significant fumbling problems in Arizona, he touched the ball 94 times in five games last season without putting it on the ground.
During camp, let’s see how explosively Hightower is able to cut off his left leg and whether he can run at full speed. If the results are affirmative, expect him to lead the Redskins’ running back committee.
Hightower’s health is so important because there are questions about Helu and Royster, the other two running backs competing for significant playing time.
Helu wore down physically after he became the starter. He averaged 24 carries per game in Weeks 12 through 15, and then he missed Week 16 and played hurt in the finale. He also injured his hamstring during offseason practices.
His toughness is not in question. So is that just the result of taking a running back’s normal pounding, or is Helu more susceptible to injuries than others? Helu has an auspicious past: he didn’t miss any games during his final three seasons at Nebraska. We need a greater sample size.
Helu fits in a third-down/change-of-pace role. He can catch the ball out of the backfield, has big-play speed, and his pass blocking improved with experience.
Royster (5.9-yard average on 56 carries in 2011) lacks the big-play explosiveness of Hightower and Helu, but still he finds yards. He falls forward, can gain yards after contact, and his feet are quick enough to redirect to a running lane. His pass protection also improved as he gained experience.
Royster will have to carry a big load if Hightower isn’t fully healthy, and that’s not the Redskins’ best-case scenario. Coach Mike Shanahan likes to rotate backs and play whoever is hot. A healthy Hightower would be a significant boost to a group that must take pressure off the rookie quarterback.